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Referendums - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:52 pm on 13th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative 2:52 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, by chance we had the Swiss ambassador in front of our committee today to discuss various things. Switzerland indeed has frequent referendums, but with a very different system from ours. It has a devolved, federalist system of cantons, and it works very well; we have parliamentary representative democracy. I think that those who want referendums are generally misguided. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Soley, who said that occasionally we may need them, but generally they are not at all a good idea—in fact, they are a shocking idea.

Luckily, I was not here in 2015 when the referendum Bill came forward, so I claim no responsibility—although I cannot quite remember whether I may have been able to vote on one amendment at the end. Those who ask for a second referendum must have taken leave of their senses. The poison that was injected into the body politic in 2016, and is still there, would be exacerbated yet further and more poison would be injected. Moreover, what would be the result? If it went the other way and people voted to remain, there would be uproar and accusations of “We was robbed” by those who voted to leave the first time round. Personally, I think it would be more likely to go the same way and that people would vote to leave again, which begs the question: what would the question be?

When I asked the noble Lord, Lord Newby, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in this House, what the question would be, answer came there none. I am afraid that the Liberal Democrats have form on this. In 2008, Mr Nick Clegg started a petition, saying,

“It’s time for a REAL REFERENDUM ON EUROPE … Only a real referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU will let the people decide our country’s future”.

Let the people decide, he said. Various Members who are currently here will remember that, on 26 February that year, some 50 Liberal Democrat MPs stormed out of the Commons in a frankly risible stunt to protest that they were not allowed to discuss having a referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, will remember that the Liberal Democrat manifesto 2010 said they were,

“committed to an in-out referendum the next time”,

there is “fundamental change”. In 2016, Sir Vince Cable, who I believe is still the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said:

“The public have voted … it’s seriously disrespectful—and politically utterly counter-productive—to say ‘Sorry guys, you got it wrong, you’ve got to try again’”.

Very unusually, I agree with what Nick said in 2008 about respecting the people’s decision. Very unusually, I agree with Vince Cable about respecting the people’s decision. Politics gets a very bad press, and probably the main reason is that the public do not believe that politicians tell the truth or are consistent. I will leave it at that and hope that the Liberal Democrat speaker—my former colleague in the Ministry of Defence, with whom I got on very well—will dwell seriously on those comments.